Balanc­ing acts

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - LINE OF DUTY - Kcul­[email protected]­

As re­searchers like Daniels con­tinue to study whether fire­fight­ers have a higher risk of can­cer due to ex­po­sure to tox­ins while on the job, of­fi­cials at de­part­ments across the Chicago sub­urbs are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly vig­i­lant about com­bat­ing what many de­scribe as the most daunt­ing chal­lenge now fac­ing fire­fight­ers.

The death of Waukegan fire­fighter Kevin Old­ham, 33, from pan­cre­atic can­cer in 2011, fol­lowed by the di­ag­noses of two mem­bers of the de­part­ment who cur­rently are bat­tling can­cer, has made pre­vent­ing can­cer a top pri­or­ity for the de­part­ment, Waukegan fire Chief Ge­orge Bridges Jr. said.

“Fire­fight­ers these days are not just fight­ing fires. They are deal­ing with struc­tures that are cat­e­go­rized as (haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als) in­ci­dents be­cause of all of the chem­i­cal tox­ins in the build­ings,” Bridges said. “As a fire chief, fire­fight­ers are my su­per­heroes, and the byprod­ucts of to­day’s fires are their kryp­tonite.”

He added: “It re­ally touched home af­ter Kevin’s death. … He was very young, and had a wife and kids.

“We are a fam­ily here, and when some­one dies or is ill, and to think there’s some­thing we can do to help pre­vent this, it hurts us even more,” Bridges said.

As fire chiefs like Bridges cope with the loss of a fire­fighter and strug­gle to find ways to help those who are still bat­tling can­cer, govern­ment of­fi­cials in the area face for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges posed by can­cer cases.

In Buf­falo Grove, vil­lage of­fi­cials said the de­ci­sion to file a law­suit con­test­ing the fire­fighter pen­sion board’s rul­ing to grant Kevin Hauber’s fam­ily a full pen­sion was made af­ter much de­lib­er­a­tion.

Pay­ing the Hauber fam­ily the full pen­sion ben­e­fit would cost tax­pay­ers an ad­di­tional $1.7 mil­lion over the course of the pen­sion, of­fi­cials have said.

In ad­di­tion, of­fi­cials said the pen­sion board’s de­ci­sion rep­re­sented a “prece­dent-set­ting case,” which, if not chal­lenged, would have a long-term, neg­a­tive fi­nan­cial ef­fect on mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to bal­ance the hu­man in­ter­ests of Kevin’s widow and her chil­dren with the fi­nan­cial and fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­i­ties we have to our res­i­dents,” Buf­falo Grove Vil­lage Man­ager Dane Bragg said. “It is def­i­nitely chal­leng­ing, and we have been sen­si­tive of that from day one. But some­times, you have to make a de­ci­sion that is not the most pop­u­lar po­si­tion to be in.”

When a mu­nic­i­pal­ity de­signs a pen­sion sys­tem, of­fi­cials should en­sure that the con­trac­tual agree­ments in cases of em­ployee dis­abil­ity and death are stated clearly, and they also “need to honor them,” said Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies Col­lege of Busi­ness for the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign.

While fa­tal­i­ties from catas­trophic in­juries suf­fered dur­ing a ser­vice call have none of the am­bi­gu­ity in­her­ent to can­cer deaths, Brown said pen­sion pol­icy con­tracts should be air­tight and elim­i­nate any lin­ger­ing ques­tions for fam­ily mem­bers about their ben­e­fits.

“I’m sym­pa­thetic to these fam­i­lies be­cause pub­lic pen­sions have be­come a hot-but­ton po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial is­sue,” Brown said. “But a pen­sion pol­icy should be writ large with a prom­ise that the city is ob­li­gated to ei­ther pay the pen­sion ben­e­fit or not.”

Af­ter the can­cer death of Lin­colnshire-River­woods Fire Pro­tec­tion District Lt. James Car­ney, 43, vil­lage of­fi­cials did not fight the Fire De­part­ment pen­sion board’s de­ci­sion to grant his widow and their two young chil­dren a full pen­sion ben­e­fit, said Steve Shet­sky, a fel­low fire­fighter and mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers Lo­cal 4224.

Car­ney, who was raised on his fam­ily’s farm in Wadsworth, was di­ag­nosed with can­cer in 2013 af­ter med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions de­ter­mined the dis­ease was the re­sult of re­peated ex­po­sure to car­cino­gens while he was out fight­ing fires, Shet­sky said.

Ac­cord­ing to court records, Car­ney, who had sought med­i­cal at­ten­tion af­ter he was hav­ing trou­ble sleep­ing and was cough­ing at night, was di­ag­nosed with peri­cardi­tis, which is the swelling of the tis­sue around the heart.

Af­ter a surgery was per­formed, doc­tors found a tu­mor be­tween Car­ney’s heart and the mem­brane en­clos­ing the heart. His fire­fight­ing ca­reer ended af­ter di­ag­no­sis and treat­ment for peri­car­dial mesothe­lioma, court records show.

While Car­ney was granted li­neof-duty dis­abil­ity pen­sion ben­e­fits and his death was ruled as du­ty­based, of­fi­cials de­nied a re­quest that his fam­ily be cov­ered by a health in­sur­ance ben­e­fit un­der the Pub­lic Safety Em­ployee Ben­e­fits Act, prompt­ing a Feb­ru­ary 2016 law­suit against the fire pro­tec­tion district.

A June de­ci­sion by the Illi­nois Ap­pel­late Court up­held a rul­ing by the Cir­cuit Court of Lake County that the Car­ney fam­ily is in­deed en­ti­tled to the line-of-duty dis­abil­ity pen­sion ben­e­fit.

“Ev­ery as­pect of this en­tire process has been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for ev­ery­one in­volved,” Shet­sky said.

“This seems to have be­come the new norm … mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties con­test­ing line-of-duty ben­e­fits. They risked their lives for their com­mu­ni­ties in the short time they lived, and now, their loved ones face a bat­tle.” Univer­sity Park fire­fighter, 42, colon can­cer


When a colonoscopy in Feb­ru­ary de­tected what turned out to be a golf­ball-sized, can­cer­ous tu­mor on her large in­tes­tine, Keri Pa­celli said she was flab­ber­gasted.

“I was very sur­prised be­cause I thought it was prob­a­bly just my gall­blad­der,” Pa­celli said. “I knew that can­cer can be part of life, but I just didn’t think it would be when I was only 40.”

Her view

As a busy work­ing mother with two young daugh­ters, Pa­celli said she didn’t have time to worry much about her oc­ca­sional bouts of gas­troin­testi­nal flare-ups, and is grate­ful her doc­tor urged her to get a colonoscopy.

Fol­low­ing her di­ag­no­sis, Pa­celli said she heard from four other young fire­fight­ers di­ag­nosed with colon can­cer within a 10-mile ra­dius of Univer­sity Park.

“We’re crazy if we think any of this can­cer is not be­cause of May­wood fire­fighter, 54, prostate can­cer


In 2010, a doc­tor con­duct­ing a rou­tine checkup de­tected Gene Wash­ing­ton’s pro­tein lev­els were high. The long­time fire­fighter said he was dev­as­tated when a biopsy un­cov­ered an ag­gres­sive form of prostate can­cer.

“I had pre­vi­ous tests, and the other doc­tor never caught it,” said Wash­ing­ton, a mar­ried father and grand­fa­ther.

He has been deal­ing with a prostate can­cer di­ag­no­sis for the past eight years.

His view

“Years ago, it was ridicu­lous, but we thought it was wast­ing time to put on a mask. You’d wake up the next day and blow your nose, and black soot would come out.”

Wash­ing­ton said no one has de­ter­mined whether his can­cer stems from his pro­fes­sion.

“Maybe it’s a con­tribut­ing fac­tor, but we just don’t know how can­cer man­i­fests in your body,” he said.


As Wash­ing­ton awaits word from his doc­tors at the Univer­sity all of the car­cino­gens … the smoke and burn­ing plas­tics,” Pa­celli said. “We’re breath­ing it all in, and where is it all go­ing?”


Af­ter surgery and che­mother­apy, Pa­celli has now re­turned to her job as fire­fighter. She re­mains hope­ful that a work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion at­tor­ney can help her get back some of her lost sick time and re­coup the de­ductibles paid on med­i­cal bills, to­tal­ing more than $400,000. of Chicago on when he will start ra­di­a­tion ther­apy, he has de­cided to re­tire ear­lier than an­tic­i­pated.

“Can­cer has made me re­al­ize how short life is, and I still want to be able to some­day en­joy tak­ing my wife on a gon­dola ride in Venice, to tour the Eif­fel Tower and to see the ru­ins in Rome,” Wash­ing­ton said, adding, “I don’t re­ally dis­cuss my can­cer with a lot of peo­ple be­cause I’m a pri­vate per­son. I’m not one to broad­cast my prob­lems, but I’m not ashamed of it, ei­ther.”

— Karen Ann Cul­lotta, Pi­o­neer Press


Univer­sity Park fire­fighter Keri Pa­celli holds her hel­met, which has pho­tos of her daugh­ters, Bri­anna, 15, and Jenna, 11, taped to it. She has re­turned to work.


Gene Wash­ing­ton was a fire­fighter in May­wood for 28 years but re­cently re­tired af­ter learn­ing he has prostate can­cer.

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